Pope John Paul II called for a New Evangelization; Denver answered

Moira Cullings

Shortly after Pope John Paul II visited Denver during World Youth Day in 1993, Curtis Martin had the opportunity to meet with the pope and share his vision for an organization called FOCUS.

The idea was that FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) would evangelize students on college campuses, a place where many people lose their faith. When the pope heard the idea, his message for Martin was simple.

“Be soldiers,” he said.

“We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel,” said John Zimmer, Vice President of Apostolic Development at FOCUS.

Over the past 25 years, FOCUS has impacted tens of thousands of young people across the country and the world.

It’s one of several organizations that hit the ground running after the pope’s visit, sparked by his call for a New Evangelization, and whose impact has shaped the Catholic Church in Denver and throughout the world.

Seminaries bring ‘a richness’ to the archdiocese

After WYD 1993, the Archdiocese of Denver went on to shape future priests first-hand by creating two local seminaries.

Redemptoris Mater was established in 1996 and St. John Vianney in 1999. Both seminaries are located on the campus of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

“After the experience of the World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993, Archbishop [J. Francis] Stafford saw the goodness of establishing a diocesan in Denver and studied the possibility of opening a diocesan and missionary Redemptoris Mater seminary here,” said Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa.

We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa is the current rector at Redemptoris Mater, an international seminary that brings in men from around the world.

“Internationality adds richness to the formation experience,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, “as these future priests learn to live, work, study, play sports and interact in a variety of ways with other fellow seminarians coming from other cultures and world viewpoints.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa believes bringing in seminarians from other countries “is a richness for everyone in the archdiocese, as it makes present the Catholicity and universality that constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the Church.”

He finds that having two seminaries in Denver helps the seminarians — especially those from other countries studying for Denver — to stay in close contact with the archbishop and other Church leaders, as well as gain a better understanding of the parishes and ministries in the archdiocese.

Working within those parishes and ministries is a key part of formation at both seminaries, as the seminarians help the young and the elderly and offer services for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This, said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, is how the seminaries play a role in the New Evangelization in Denver.

“The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization,” he said, “the more we receive from it.”

Augustine Institute ‘on the cutting edge’ of JPII’s vision

The Augustine Institute has formed disciples who have gone on to evangelize through a variety of apostolates.

By offering an M.A. in Theology, an M.A. in Leadership, study programs, videos and more, the Augustine Institute has created lay leaders in the New Evangelization.

“We opened in August 2006, inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization . . .” said Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, in a 2016 interview with Denver Catholic.

“We wanted to help people effectively engage, evangelize and win the post-modern culture that believes anyone can have their own private story, but there should be no public story,” said Gray.

Those who participate in the Augustine Institute go on to work in a variety of apostolates, said Gray.

“We are also amazed by the new ways graduates go into the field,” he said.

Organizations created by graduates of the Augustine Institute include Camp Wojtyla and Christ in the City. Others have gone on to work as leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver office and our Catholic schools.

The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization, the more we receive from it.”

And by launching formed.org, an online video streaming service that offers Catholic content to people around the world, those who aren’t seeking a degree but simply want to go deeper in their faith have the opportunity to do so.

“This is on the cutting edge of the New Evangelization,” said Gray.

FOCUS fights on the ‘battleground for souls’

Since Pope John Paul II’s visit, FOCUS has evangelized tens of thousands of college students. The organization expects that by 2022, around 75,000 students who were involved with FOCUS have transitioned into many of the 17,000 plus parishes in the United States.

“I think JPII not only challenged the Church for lay Catholics to evangelize, but in his World Youth Day efforts, he really challenged the young people to say that this is your role, your responsibility, so take an active part,” said Zimmer.

Zimmer admits the pope not only had a deep impact on the culture in Denver, but also on his own life.

“Even for me in this lost, dazed and confused world I was in at the time, it was still a very moving experience to see the pope land in the helicopter and watch him come in,” said Zimmer.

“It planted a seed [in me] that took a decade to come to fruition.”

Zimmer joined FOCUS in 1999 shortly after it was founded, and he and his wife first served as missionaries. Since then, Zimmer has held a variety of roles in the corporate office in Denver.

At FOCUS, college campuses are seen as a critical time when students need the Gospel to build upon a strong foundation for a sturdy faith life.

“The college campus is really a battleground for souls,” said Zimmer. “I think the Church needs to do as good a job as possible at trying to reach souls on college campuses when they’re in a time of questioning and they’re away from their parents for the first time.

“It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

One of the biggest ways FOCUS spreads the New Evangelization, said Zimmer, is by showing that the Gospel still matters today.

“I think one of the great opportunities we’ve had is to be a witness that the Gospel is still relevant,” said Zimmer, “and it’s relevant to young people.”

25 years down the road, FOCUS has high hopes for its evangelization efforts.

It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

“By then, hopefully millions of people who were involved in FOCUS will be planted in parishes throughout the country,” said Zimmer, “and there will be renewal happening all over — not just through FOCUS, but through all the other great apostolates.”

Seminaries
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • 73 men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Denver
    • 52 men from outside the Archdiocese of Denver studying for the priesthood at St. John Vianney
    • 33 men studying for the priesthood at Redemptoris Mater
    • 125 men in formation studying in Denver at both St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater
FOCUS
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • Nearly 700 missionaries are serving full-time on 153 college campuses
    • Missionaries will serve college campuses across 42 U.S. states and five international locations
    • A campus in England, Germany and Ireland, and two campuses in Austria, will be served by FOCUS missionaries
  • By 2022
    • FOCUS expects to have 75,000 students transitioned into many of the over 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States
  • Since its founding
    • Tens of thousands of students have been involved with FOCUS
    • Out of those involved in FOCUS, 732 have decided to pursue religious vocations

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.